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Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices
Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 5, 22, and 24
I furl my brow and suck in my cheeks when I merely think of vinegar. With lips curled, I am reminded of sour of unripe pineapple and of lime and grapefruit. Just a sniff of vinegar can fling my eyelids open.
My first memories of vinegar are associated with the birth of my younger sister. Soon after my mother returned home, Fourth Auntie arrived to clink and clang in our kitchen. Into a large pot she threw pallid beige gray colored pieces of pigs' feet and chunks of pale yellow ginger. She poured dark thick sweetened black vinegar into the concoction and then added hard boiled eggs. The mixture brewed to an amber shade. Viscous bubbles exploded aromas of sweet and sour, licorice and cinnamon into the air. For the month of celebration, this traditional Cantonese dish simmered on the stovetop and was spooned into bowls and served to visiting guests, and to my mom. The stew was constantly replenished with the addition of fresh vinegar, pigs' feet, and hard boiled eggs.
The calcium extracted from simmering the bones of the pigs' feet helps rebuild the new mother's strength and the sweet and sour flavor stimulates her appetite. The ginger aids digestion and keeps away chills, dispelling any feng or wind, that may enter the body of the mother. In olden times, she was advised to blow warmly on her new baby's head after chewing the ginger, and then to rub the head gently, encouraging the development of a round shaped head. Luckily, my mother did not blow too many breaths on my sister's lovely oval head.
Vinegar, defined directly and simply as a sour liquid, is often made by the fermentation of fruit juices. The English word vinegar is derived from Old French vyn egre or 'sour wine.' Wine implies the use of grapes, but in China, grape vinegar is rarely used. The Chinese made vinegar or cho, from grains such as barley, millet, and rice, and from fruits including dates, cherries, and peaches, and from honey.
We know very little about the history of Chinese vinegar. Among the first mentions of this versatile liquid, we find from the Chou Dynasty (12th century BCE - 221 BCE), texts such as Tso chuan and Mo Tzu mentioning liu as a seasoning. Liu was usually interpreted as 'vinegar,' but its manufacture and ingredients remain unknown. Plums, we know, provide a sour taste; they were often mentioned with salt (yen mei) as the chief seasoning ingredient in Chou cooking.
Sour was not a favored taste in our house. I still can clearly see my younger sister with puckered face say in her high voice, "Sour, too sour," all the while shaking her head trying to fling the distaste away. But intuitively, my parents practiced the philosophy of yin and yang, the pairing of opposites, in their cooking. In their flavors, textures, colors, food types, and cooking methods, they aimed for a balance of the feminine, yielding, and dark as yin to the masculine, hard, and light, which is yang.
Alone, vinegar can be pungent; it can sting and bite. But its sharpness can be balanced with sweetness, smoothed with saltiness, and leveled with spiciness. Sweet and sour pork has become one of my sister's favorite dishes. Sour combined with sweetness, can enhance the appetite and dull the oiliness of fried items. Vinegar and salt, and sometimes sugar, are often combined for pickling and preserving of mustard greens and daikon radishes. When vinegar is combined with soy sauce, scallions, and ginger, it brightens the taste of seafood by neutralizing any fishy aromas and flavors. Paired with the peppercorns, the pungency of vinegar levels well with the spiciness as in hot and sour soup.
In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Japanese borrowed the techniques for making rice vinegar and rice wine from the Chinese. During the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), sushi made with rice, vinegar, oil, and any meat or raw fish was popular in China; eventually it became better known as a Japanese specialty.
The manufacturing process for Chinese vinegar is a cross between the techniques for making rice wine and soy sauce. It involves six to seven months of soaking, steaming, and cooling of the chosen grain, primary fermentation with yeast, secondary fermentation with vinegar acid, sunning during the daytime, and exposure to the cool night air, followed by straining and pasteurization before bottling. Chinese vinegars are lighter and slightly sweeter than Western white or cider vinegars. The average acidity is about five to six percent with some residual sugar from the fermentation process. The main types are white (clear), red, and black.
Vinegar was believed to cleanse the system and was used as an antiseptic both internally and externally. In the fourteenth century, Chia Ming's Yin shih Hsu chih (1368 CE), titled in English as: Essential Knowledge of Eating and Drinking, stressed the importance of prevention rather than treatment of disease. He reported that vinegar counteracted the poison from the flesh of fish, melons, possibly cucumbers, and other vegetables. Chia Ming said that rice vinegar was excellent, but if used in excess could damage the flesh and bones and harm the stomach. Vinegar was not beneficial for males for it damaged their teeth and made the visage pale. On the other hand, he believed that vinegar activated poisons and should never be taken in conjunction with medicines, particularly, pine root fungus (fu ling), red ginseng, or whitlow grass (Draba nemorosa).
Vinegar's role in food and health became more important in time. The Huang Ming Tsu hsun lo of 1381 CE translated as Ancestral Admonitions, during the reign of the Ming founder designated separate bureaus within the palace to be responsible for the maintenance of palace and state shrines. One of the bureaus included the imperial vinegar works. Shinoda Osamu, a Japanese specialist in the history of Chinese food, believes that the things required to keep an ordinary kitchen going in the Yuan and Ming times were fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, tea, and vinegar.
Later in the seventeenth century, it was believed that a Buddhist monk in Sichuan, who lived to be over a hundred years old, did so because of his daily intake of a special herb vinegar. This vinegar supposedly reduced his blood pressure, cured his colds, and prevented other epidemic diseases.
In the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), vinegar was used as a preservative. Sometimes its flavor was enhanced with the addition of leaves from kumquat trees and peach blossoms. Substitutes for vinegar included juice extracted from the bark of a southern Chinese tree said to resemble the chestnut. This was combined with brine to make a preservative for duck eggs.
Fourth Auntie practiced a variation of the traditional vinegar preservation techniques. I remember large bottles of pickled mustard greens on the top shelves in her kitchen. On top of a chair, she stood on her tiptoes and stretched to carefully pull down a bottle. After unscrewing the jar, she pulled out a fist-size hunk of greens. Entombed in glass, large pale gray lime colored chunks of frilly edged leaves and thick stems brimmed with saltiness, sourness, and sweetness.
Then, on her large round wood chopping block, she furiously minced pork meat with her metal cleaver. With equal energy and rhythm, she chopped black forest mushrooms and the pickled mustard greens. After mixing everything together, she pressed the mixture onto a glass plate ready to be steamed. Then she would edge the patty with quartered slices of preserved salted duck eggs. The bright whites and sunset orange yolks showed brilliantly against the brown beige of the meat. On the table, the dish breathed the steam it had cooked in, exuding the aromas of salty, sour, and sweet.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), Yuan Mei, a scholar interested in food and its principles, stressed the understanding of the natural properties of a given food in his recipe book, Shih tan. He said the choice of condiments was important: Soy, oils, and vinegars all have their own attributes and defects. I know that I have taken vinegar only at its face value. I have neglected its sharpness and pungency as strengths that could make a difference in the flavor and aroma of food, and in one's well being. Not all vinegars are created equal. Some serve better at washing windows, while others provide depth and dimension to food.
Though I still curl my nose at the initial thought of vinegar, I now think twice as memories of sharing food with my family, the birth of my younger sister, and the cooking of my Fourth Auntie flood my mind. I savor vinegar's strong personality and value its balancing strength. My puckered lips now quickly smooth to a smile.
There are three main types of Chinese vinegars, and another made with them. They are:
CHINESE BLACK VINEGAR or (jit cho)is made from rice, wheat, millet or sorghum. Like Italy's balsamic vinegar, it can vary in flavor, sweetness, and viscosity. The best vinegar, Chinkiang Vinegar, is made from glutinous rice and malt and is from Zhejiang on China's north coast. The better black vinegars are well aged and display a complex, smoky flavor. Black vinegar is less tart than white vinegar. Chefs in Shanxi region, near Beijing, add it to just about everything. They cannot poach an egg without adding vinegar. One brand, Gold Plum Chinkiang vinegar or zhenjiang xiangcu which translates to Fragrant Vinegar of Zhenjiang, won the French Laurier d'Or de la Qualite Internationale in 1985. Did they know that this type of vinegar is used by the Chinese in braised dishes, with noodles, as a dip or a seasoning, and is added to soups just before serving?
CHINESE RED VINEGAR or (hak mi cho) is made from red rice, barley, and sorghum. This vinegar is mildly acidic and salty with a hint of sweetness. It can be clear or pale to dark brownish red in color and is a favorite dipping sauce for seafood, especially crab, and for pot stickers and fried noodles. Sometimes, it is added to Shark's Fin Soup or Dumpling Soup. It is believed that red vinegar aids in digestion. In modern times, red rice vinegar is made from rice wine lees, that is the fermented rice mash (hongzao) and alcohol with added sugar to speed up the process.
CHINESE WHITE VINEGAR or (bok cho also shao jiu or lesser wine) is made from fermented rice. This vinegar is popular in China, Japan, and Korea. The Japanese and Chinese white rice vinegars are milder and sweeter than Western white distilled vinegar. There is no Western equivalent but should you need to, substitute with diluted white or cider vinegar. This rice vinegar was originally made from rice cooked with water and then treated with yeast to ferment the sugar with the grain. The fermentation produced an alcoholic liquid which was then converted to vinegar with the addition of an acetic acid producing bacteria. The result was a complex flavorful vinegar, which is not reproduced today. Use this or any vinegar in cooking and salad dressing, for pickling brines, sauces, or to add a dash to soups. Vinegar is essential in sweet and sour dishes. After opening this or any vinegar, store at room temperature.
SWEETENED CHINESE RICE VINEGAR or sweetened black vinegar has a distinctive flavor and cannot be used in place of black vinegar. Although it is also amber to dark brown in color and is brewed from rice, it is fragrant with cassia, star anise, and sugar, and it lacks acidity. It has a caramel like taste with a touch of tartness. This vinegar is featured in the Cantonese dish of pig's feet with ginger and sweet black vinegar. It also is used to flavor stock, pork and braised dishes. Add a dash with a pinch of sugar to stir fried Chinese broccoli.
The following recipes that are good examples of the use and taste of Chinese vinegars. Enjoy them all.
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